When I was growing up, I was an ardent football fan. No other sport even came close to rivaling my passion for that game. This is probably natural as my father was a football coach, and I played the game through high school (my 5’5″ frame and slow legs prevented me from continuing my football career at a higher level). So it was somewhat of a surprise to me that at some point in the 1990s I realized that I cared more about what occured on a baseball diamond than I did about the gridiron.
I bring this up because I’ve just become aware of a 1981 letter written by the great American philosopher John Rawls, which lists the reasons baseball is the greatest game. This letter, as might be expected, has prompted a few discussions about the merits of baseball versus football (with basketball and hockey as mostly after thoughts). And so I’ve been asking myself why I now like baseball more than football. Here are a few of my thoughts:
First of all, I guess I have to admit that it is in part a reflection of my affinity for my favorite teams. As a teenager I was mad for the Dallas Cowboys. Roger Staubach, Bob Lilly, Walt Garrison, Tony Dorsett, Cliff Harris, Jethro Pugh, Randy White… the whole gang. I just loved them. In the 1980s, once the Cowboys declined, and especially when Jerry Jones bought the team and fired Tom Landry, my interest waned. Even once the team started winning again, I could never muster the same passion for Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin. (Don’t mistake me, I’m still a Cowboys fan — going on 42 years now — but not with the same fervor.)
In the meantime I started paying more attention to baseball and learning more about all its facets. Back in the day, I didn’t even know what a hit and run is, let alone what is a good count to put the hit and run on. To truly appreciate baseball, you need to be aware of all these nuances, because otherwise it is just a pitcher’s and a batter’s game.
Baseball is a cleaner game. By that I mean that the action on the field is pretty clear to anyone watching. In this I agree with Rawls, who made a similar observation. In football, some of the most intense and critical action occurs in masses of bodies at the line of scrimage. It is difficult to really appreciate that. Watching football, in some ways is like reading an analog watch: There is all sorts of mechanisms at work, but all you see or really care about is the result — the time, or what happens to the ball. The mechanisms in baseball may be simpler, but they are all on display and it is easier to appreciate them.
I like that in baseball every player (except pitchers) has to play defense and offense. While the skill sets vary between some of the defensive positions, every player needs to be able to catch and throw and run and hit. It makes it easier to compare players across teams. So a second baseman from the Red Sox and a left fielder from the Rangers can both be competing for a batting title. In football, you can only compare receivers to other receivers, running backs to other running backs, etc… This gives me a rooting interest in every player on my favorite team, and I find that more engaging.
Though it has now become a cliche, the fact that baseball doesn’t have a time limit is also compelling. Games last as long as they need to, and there isn’t an artificial urgency created by the ticking clock.
In addition, during the season my favorite team plays five or six times a week, so there is always news to follow. Free-agency also makes the off season interesting. So I can remain engaged in my favorite team every day throughout the year.
Less tangibly but no less significant, baseball season is a harbinger of springtime — no small thing here in Vermont. It is the game of spring time and summer. Football is the harbinger of winter. It starts in the pleasant days of September and ends in the dark of February, and then we still have two months of winter to endure.
Finally, I think I have become less tolerant of the violence in football, due, perhaps, to my growing liberalism. I still enjoy watching a clean, hard tackle, but it seems that more and more football players try to put a smack down on their opponents… or maybe I’m just noticing that more. With so much violence in the world, perhaps we don’t need more in our entertainments.
Do I agree with everything Rawls has to say about baseball? No. He talks about the equilibrium of the game and the way that football fiddles with the rules to get things right. He clearly forgot about how baseball lowered the mound in the late 1960s to reduce the pitcher’s advantage. And he wrote his letter before MLB jiggered the baseballs to create home run balls. And that’s not even to mention the steroid era.